A fire away from disaster

Despite routine fire inspections, most MU Greek houses keep committing the same potentially fatal fire code violations
Sunday, March 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Just before dawn on May 8, 1999, a fire broke out on the third floor of the Sigma Chi fraternity house on South College Avenue. The blaze was ignited by a candle in a shoebox lid that had been placed at the opening of a tiny enclosed loft in which two students were sleeping.

Columbia firefighters responded to the alarm at 4:57 a.m. and, within 20 minutes, had extinguished the fire. That wasn’t quick enough to save Dominic Passantino. While his roommate scrambled to safety, the freshman from Leawood, Kan., was trapped by the flames. He died of smoke inhalation.

Sigma Chi hadn’t been inspected for adherence to local fire code regulations since 1994. Sigma Chi no longer has a chapter at MU. The fire underscored the need for the Columbia Fire Department to inspect fraternity and sorority houses annually.

Yet, six years later, MU’s Greek houses, fraternities in particular, remain some of the most hazardous buildings in Columbia. Since 2002, when the Fire Department started keeping regular records on Greek houses, the department has cited fraternities and sororities for nearly 400 code violations, according to the available city records.

In 2003 alone, inspectors cited 47 Greek houses for more than 180 fire code violations; just three houses were found to be in compliance. Because some houses are awaiting re-inspection, the department is still compiling its records for 2004. However, Lt. Debbie Sorrell of the Fire Department, who coordinates and conducts Greek house inspections for the Fire Department, said that the total number of violations last year is consistent with years past.

Sorrell’s position was created in April 1999, just two weeks before the fire that killed Dominic Passantino. The position is a joint appointment by the city and MU, each of which pays half the annual salary.

Prior to April 1999, there had been a temporary moratorium on inspections in Greek houses and other city facilities because of litigation aimed at changing the fire code’s requirements on stairwells, according to Steven Sapp, the battalion chief for the Fire Department. “The fire brought home the need to exchange information in a better format,” he said.

Sorrell, who took over the job in July 2004, gives advance notice — sometimes weeks in advance — that she plans to inspect a fraternity or sorority house. The most common violations — failure to maintain fire and smoke alarms — are probably the easiest to rectify. In more than 40 cases, inspectors also found improperly functioning emergency lights and exit signs. Citations for improper storage of flammable liquids and the potentially dangerous use of extension cords were also common.

The Fire Department has the right to take action against fraternities and sororities for poor fire safety “if they can’t cooperate, or take too much time to remedy the violations,” Sorrell said. “If it’s something extremely serious, then we can close the house.”

However, since Sorrell has had the job, the department has not closed a house nor issued a single fine. Sorrell said the department is reluctant to take action against Greek houses through the legal system, preferring that violations be handled by MU’s Office of Greek Life.

“We feel that we may get more cooperation with houses because we’re going through Greek Life rather than going through the city prosecutor,” she said.

Each year, Janna Basler, director of Greek Life, gives all fraternities and sororities safety information, including fire code requirements. Basler said her office “has a mechanism in place to hold chapters accountable” for fire code violations. “We take safety seriously,” she said, “and with that we have developed a partnership with the Columbia Fire Department to try to create a safer environment for our students.”

Basler acknowledges that, since Greek Life and the city started working together on Greek fire safety, no action has been taken against houses for fire code violations. She said that’s because the chapters are still working with the Fire Department to fix the problems or because the violations “aren’t severe enough to take judicial action.”

Unless the violation is so severe that lives are in immediate danger – such as a total lack of fire extinguishers or inaccessible fire doors – Sorrell grants houses two weeks to take action on violations. Yet, city records show that inspectors are citing the same houses for the same violations each year, with most houses being re-inspected numerous times without consequence.

As a group, MU fraternities average five to seven violations each year. MU’s 14 sororities average about three violations, and two houses – Alpha Phi and Chi Omega – had none in 2004.

One of the worst violators last year was the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, at 520 S. College Ave., which was cited with 11 violations, including seven at its annex at 1307 Wilson St. Sorrell re-inspected the annex early last week and found that the house had corrected the violations.

Sorrell has yet to conduct the 2004 re-inspection of the Sigma Nu fraternity house, at 710 College Ave. But Sigma Nu was one of the worst offenders in 2003, with 12 violations – more than double what they were cited for in 2002.

Violations included flammable and combustible liquids stored in a hazardous area (the mechanical room), no fire extinguishers on the first floor of the house, non-functioning emergency lights, and incorrectly maintained extinguishers and detection systems.

“When you have a fire, of course, it’s terribly smoky and difficult to see, so any light you can get is helpful,” Sorrell said. “Historically, most fires happen from 8 at night to 8 in the morning.”

Inspectors also found problems with fire doors at Sigma Nu as they did in more than 20 cases at other Greek houses.

Sorrell said: “Fire doors will stop smoke and heat for a certain amount of time. Houses have stairwells and every entrance to the stairwell on every floor has a fire door. If those are propped open it doesn’t do any good. It lets all the smoke in there and it just makes a chimney out of the stairwell, and that’s how you get out. But if you prop the doors open, it negates that.”

In conjunction with the Center for Campus Fire Safety, the Princeton Review, a nationally renowned publication of college rankings, has begun to consider fire safety in its ratings. In 2005, MU received a 60, a failing score, because the university failed to provide key information to the publication. The University of Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa all received a score of 90 or above.

MU spokesman Christian Basi said that MU does not consider the Princeton Review a credible source. “We don’t feel the Princeton Review is a good indicator or that it’s scientifically accurate,” Basi said.

In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, the National Fire Protection Association estimates that more than 2,500 fraternity and sorority house caught fire, resulting in six deaths and 82 injuries. The Center for Campus Fire Safety estimates that 66 college students have died in fires since 2000, although 90% of those students lived off campus.

Ed Comeau, director of the center, said, “The fact that the University of Missouri had a fatality and has failed to aggressively react to it I think sends a signal of the level of importance that the university places on fire safety.”

Each year, Columbia fire officials screen the movie “Dominic’s Story” for residents of MU’s Greek houses. The film was put together with the help of Henson, Dominic Passantino’s mother. Sorrell said “Domonic’s Story” is a powerful visual tool, but that few fraternities and sororities heed its message.

“We’ll show the movie and then the guys will be all gung ho about fire safety, but then they won’t want to follow up with the standards they set for themselves,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s short memory, but it’s hard to keep them excited about something.”

High turnover rates, mixed with the age and lifestyle of occupants make fire awareness in Greek houses challenging. “Being young, irresponsible and immature definitely doesn’t help,” said Matt Luzecky, a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. “Many of these houses are so old that fire safety is a constant ordeal, one that often gets forgotten about with the rigors and business of college life.”

Both the NFPA and the Center for Campus Fire Safety say that most deaths due to fire could be prevented with automatic sprinkler systems. Fatalities at other universities have been the impetus to requiring sprinklers. At the University of North Carolina, 1996 fire at the Phi Gamma Delta frat house killed five students and led to a sprinkler requirement for all fraternities and sororities. Schools in Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Carolina, California, Kansas, Nebraska and others have also mandated sprinklers in the past decade.

Fewer than 10 of the 50 Greek houses and annexes at MU are fully equipped with sprinklers. Henson is among those who have a difficult time understanding why sprinklers are not yet required at all MU frats and sororities.

“You would think that a loss of a life of a young man would cause action, and make them sit up and take notice and ask what they need to do to prevent this from happening again and then start taking steps in that direction,” she said. “I think MU is behind the times. They’re out of sync with the rest of the educational communities in the country.”

The house where Henson’s son died, 500 S. College, is now occupied by Lambda Chi Alpha and is still not outfitted with sprinklers.

“I ask them, ‘don’t you know what happened in this house?’” Sorrell said. “But it still hasn’t been done.”

Kappa Kappa Gamma installed an automatic sprinkler system in the summer of 2001. Linda Orman, the sorority’s house director, said that the Kappa Kappa Gamma headquarters and insurance company strongly encouraged the installation. The Evans Scholars house is one of the few fraternity facilities with sprinklers.

“It shocks me that there aren’t more sprinkler systems around the Greek houses,” said Dan Leinhauer, Evans Scholars house president.

Luzecky, who has dealt with safety issues in the Kappa Sigma house, said the chapter doesn’t isn’t retrofitted with sprinklers, nor, to his knowledge, has the Fire Department suggested it install a system. Sorrell blames the city’s absence of a sprinkler requirement on the difficulties with amending the code. The city of Columbia operates under the International Fire Code, a code that does not mandate sprinklers for any building.

“I can’t make anyone put a sprinkler system in. I can just suggest it to them and let them know how great it is, but there’s no teeth to it at this point,” Sorrell said.

Houses without automatic sprinkler systems are forced to rely on individuals with fire extinguishers or to wait for the Fire Department to arrive, a wait that can turn out costly and, in some cases, deadly.

“Sprinkler systems extinguish the fire and stop the spread of smoke within a matter of minutes if not seconds,” said Comeau. “Extinguishers are valuable if you have people who are trained to use them, and capable of using them. That’s where the value of automatic systems comes into play because they operate independently of human action,” he said.

Rich Barr, Fire Marshal for Lawrence, Kan., said that the best way to save lives is to provide automatic sprinkler protection. Barr led the push for mandatory sprinkler systems for Greek houses at the University of Kansas, a push that led to an ordinance in 1993.

“The damage from fire is obviously reduced anytime a sprinkler goes off as a result of a fire,” Barr said. Currently, only three Greek houses at KU remain unequipped with automatic sprinklers, and these houses all have plans to install sprinklers in the near future.

Many fraternities and sororities shy away from sprinkler systems because of their cost. “It is a big cost, and obviously it would have to be serviced and monitored which adds to that, but it’s worth it because it saves lives,” Sorrell said.

At the University of Kansas, a series of fires quieted many of the objections about the cost of installing sprinklers. In 1987, a fraternity house fire caused $450,000 in damage. Not long after that, a fire at the Sigma Chi fraternity, which had a sprinkler system, caused a mere $675 in damage.

Speaking from the most painful of experiences, Henson hopes parents will start considering a school’s commitment to fire safety when helping their children select a college. Knowing what she knows now, “if it’s not sprinkled, I wouldn’t send my child there.”

Henson said “there’s no question in my mind” that her son would be alive today if Sigma Chi had a sprinkler system. In the wake of the blaze, it was learned that, among other violations of basic fire safety, the house had no fire extinguishers on the second and third floors of the house. As her son perished, his fraternity brothers were attempting to put out the fire with cups of water from the bathroom

“I sent my boy to school, and you know as a parent you worry about the drinking and the driving and you worry about the parties, all those things,” she said. “And I always felt like once he got back to his room that he would be safe. I never dreamed that it would be the place that took his life,” she said.

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